Jennifer Snelling
The new tenets of connecting in the digital age

Long before the internet and social media, political discussions mostly occurred face to face. People sat around the dinner table, stood at the water cooler or gathered at the lunch counter and discussed, debated, yes, argued with each other in person. While that still happens, much of the discourse today takes place online, often under the cloak of anonymity.

That’s perhaps one key reason why a 2014 Pew Research study found that the United States is more polarized than ever in our ideological camps. Have you had the urge to “unfriend” any of your Facebook friends who are posting political views different from your own? When was the last time you were at a dinner table discussing the Brexit or refugee policies and were able to have a civil debate about the issues?

Along with this polarization, or perhaps because of it, it’s become commonplace for politicians and candidates to incite hate for those different from themselves and speak in sound bites and hashtags rather than in reasoned, thoughtful arguments. Our political conversations are losing the nuance, subtlety or complexity of the issues.

Our students, too, feel this climate of intolerance. According to a study by the Hindu American Foundation titled “Classroom Subjected: Bullying & Bias Against Hindu Students in American Schools,” one in three Hindu-American students has felt bullied in school for their religious beliefs. We’ve heard the heartbreaking stories of Ryan Halligan and Megan Meier, teenagers who committed suicide after being bullied online, but statistics, too, indicate that cyberbullying and other types of harassment are happening way too often. According to the CyberBully Hotline, 42 percent of teenagers with tech access report being bullied last year.

How do we reach beyond our divisive and hate-filled climate to find our better selves and return to a culture of civility that promotes critical thinking and engaged citizenship?

Civility and citizenship

Since we are increasingly communicating with each other via devices, digital citizenship must be part of the answer. Technology, along with its access and anonymity, sets up conditions that often encourage us to do and say things we wouldn’t in person. We are no longer forced to talk face to face with those we disagree with. More often, our debates are on social media or in chat rooms.

Civility and citizenship come from understanding alternate viewpoints and being able to have conversations and respectful debates. To understand why civility went missing, we need to understand how our society has become so polarized. In 2011, Eli Pariser’s book, The Filter Bubble, pointed out that Google and other customizable search engines use our past search terms to guide our future search results. Google uses algorithms to play along with our existing ideological views. We may think we’re getting unbiased information, but we’re really finding information that confirms our existing world views.

ISTE member Alec Couros, professor of educational technology and media at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, points out that when we search Google while based in North America, our results are very different than what we find in searches from other parts of the world. Using advanced search features (for instance, searching within country codes) can allow us to see opinions we would not otherwise see.

“Unfortunately, there is no way to search for what is most relevant to the world, most important to our future, that which makes us most uncomfortable, that which challenges our views, or specifically, other viewpoints,” says Couros. “Google and other search engines aren’t in the business of critical thinking, so we have to both understand and be able to hack these limitations.”

The recently released 2016 ISTE Standards for Students include skills that build awareness around data-collection technology and how search engines and social media use algorithms in this way, notes Carolyn Sykora, senior director of ISTE Standards. The Digital Citizenship standard helps students understand the implications of these “virtual echo chambers,” she explains.

The role of empathy

Being able to understand intellectual arguments that shake our world view or wrestle with facts that don’t support our own opinions is one thing, but feeling empathy for those whose experiences we do not share is another key component of a civil, empathetic society.    

Psychiatrist Dr. Helen Riess, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, says that, as a broader society, we have lost the art of listening.

“As soon as there is a culture of disrespect for opposing opinions, we lose the art of not only listening but also of compromise and negotiation, and that’s what’s contributing to this polarized society,” says Riess. “In the past, what helped shape a respectful discourse was statesmanship, a display of a command of the issues of the day and a sense of scholarship or a deep experience.”

While the digital age is rightfully celebrated for connecting us with people from all over the world, the nature of that connection also causes us to lose critical information about those people. Riess says that much of the ability to listen to each other as individuals happened more naturally in the past. Whether you were sharing a toy, taking turns, negotiating through talking to or listening to people, we used to be socialized via being in the same room with other humans. And this distance can have negative effects on our communication. Without face-to-face contact, we lose tone of voice and facial expressions. Those vital pieces of information ease communication and connect us to our shared humanity.

That said, Riess’ research indicates that empathy can be learned. Her work at Massachusetts General shows that after doctors underwent only three hours of training in verbal and non-verbal perceptions and responses to others, their patients rated them significantly higher on empathy.

“Empathy is a brain-based capacity,” she says. “It’s an ability to perceive the thoughts and feelings of others and the ability to feel or understand the context of a person’s situation. We teach how to respond in a respectful and caring manner after really listening to what the person is saying and showing curiosity to learn more about their circumstances.”

Technology has become integrated into our lives so quickly that the youngest often learn social media and technical skills on their own. So Riess asserts that educational systems that implement social and emotional awareness in their curricula are on the right track. One approach involves group projects that require students working together individually, but also communicating virtually, so students have to learn to listen to each other.

“We need to emphasize emotional connection,” she says. “It’s scary to think we could lose the ability to recognize fear in one another’s faces.”

The ISTE Standards come into play here, too. The Global Collaborator standard puts a premium on team work and collaboration to achieve broad and mutual understanding, as well as being a critical skill for the digital workforce. Listening to multiple viewpoints and learning from those with differing backgrounds is embedded in the standards, Sykora says.

Potential solutions

While Riess and Couros acknowledge that technology is changing our communication, both see ways in which technology can help us overcome the challenge of interacting in a digital world. Virtual reality is one example of a potential solution. While you may have trouble imagining what it’s like to have a certain medical condition or live in the war-torn streets of Afghanistan, virtual reality allows you to see the world through another person’s eyes.

Courus says courses related to online discourse are essential for our students. “We have to remember that approximately 58 percent of students will have a social networking account by the age of 10,” he says. “We need to teach to that reality.”

Awareness is a big part of teaching students within the contemporary world. Couros recently participated in Saskatchewan’s Student First Anti-Bullying Forum. Through a live broadcast, he spoke to more than 9,000 students in grades 6 to12 about being safe and respectful online. “It’s important to be able to speak online with conviction,” he says, “but to also listen openly to others.”

Students' solutions

Turns out, some students are already doing this. They’re taking it upon themselves to change our culture of division and rancor.

For instance, Konner Sauve, valedictorian at East Valley High School in Yakima, Washington, under the username @thebenevolentone3, shared more than 650 photos of students at his school, each captioned with a thought or message highlighting students’ positive attributes.

“I wanted to focus on the better aspects of people,” Sauve told abc News, “to shed a positive light on each individual, make them feel appreciated and to know that someone cares.”

After seeing a story about school bullies harassing their victims via social media, Iowa teenager Jeremiah Anthony uses the Twitter account @westhighbros to send more than 3,000 tweets to members of the West High School student body, teachers, faculty and staff. He compliments friends who might be going through a hard time, preparing for an event or celebrating a victory.

When a fellow student at George McDougall High School broke into Canadian teenager Caitlin Prater-Haacke’s Facebook page, posting messages saying she should kill herself, Prater-Haacke turned the other cheek. She bought hundreds of Post-it notes and stuck uplifting messages all over her school in Airdrie, Alberta.

Ziad Ahmed, a 16-year-old Bangladeshi-American in New Jersey, was bothered by the prejudice and anti-Muslim attitudes he witnessed and experienced. As a child, he was placed on the tsa watch list because of his name. At 14, he founded Redefy, an organization that combats harmful stereotypes by encouraging students to share stories about themselves. “It’s hard when hate speech is online because I can’t rationalize with someone who’s hiding behind a screen and doesn’t want to see me as a person,” says Ahmed. Online commentators have told 16-year-old Ahmed he should die for his thoughts.

Such upsetting occurrences speak to the need to teach students to be digital citizens, but they also highlight the values embedded in the Global Collaborator standard, where students are expected to “enrich their learning” by collaborating and working effectively in teams.

This standard calls for students to broaden their perspectives by engaging with “learners from a variety of backgrounds and cultures” and examining “issues and problems from multiple viewpoints.” In an era of cyberbullying and sharp divides, these attributes embedded in the iste
Standards are vital skills to empower students to thrive in an uncertain future.

Last year, Ahmed was invited to the White House for dinner with President Obama on Iftar, which marks the traditional breaking of the fast observed by Muslims during Ramadan. Recently, he was invited back for a roundtable discussion on discrimination and bullying of Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian students.

Ahmed says we, as a culture, must continue to look for ways to challenge our own biases, ways we can convey what we care about and bring that to our communities in a real way.

“Change has to be continuous, informed by students’ voices, talking to kids one on one and having them realize their potential,” he says. “The problem is that people treat the internet as if it isn’t human interaction, but as we normalize social media, we realize that it’s another form of human connection. Social media isn’t a place to fabricate yourself but a place to connect with people who inspire your original self.”

Maybe Ahmed and these other students can lead adults back into a world where all people, regardless of skin color, religion or political affiliation, are respected. We can start by teaching students to be thoughtful about what they choose to share on social media, reminding them that intelligent people with other points of view may be reading their posts. We may even be able to have a sincere and respectful debate around the dinner table for our children to hear.

Jennifer Snelling is a freelancer who writes for a variety of publications and institutions, including the University of Oregon. As a mother to elementary and middle school-aged children, she’s a frequent classroom volunteer and is active in Oregon schools.